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Meet Catherine Nicol, Principal of SJI International Elementary School

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

In this series of Education Matters we talk to Catherine Nicol, Principal of SJI International Elementary School, and learn about the challenges of taking on a headship role in the middle of a global pandemic.

What was your journey to Singapore and SJII?

I’m from the UK originally and am a third culture kid, having been brought up in both Germany and the UK, so I always had slight wanderlust. When I got the opportunity to travel in my early twenties, I took it. I thought it would be for just two years but here I am still travelling thirty years later!

This is actually my 32nd year in teaching, the majority of which has been in international education. I’ve lived and taught in Thailand, Japan and China before arriving here in Singapore and this is now my tenth year as a Principal. So yes, I’ve got a little bit of experience now under my belt! I make fewer mistakes but who is ever completely without error, at least now I have a few experiences I can pull on.

What put SJI International onto your radar?

I’ve always worked in IB schools and as an IB curriculum workshop coordinator before that. IB schools are all different but they all have a common pattern around the IB learner profile and values. But SJI International offers a mission that is different and new to me and I thought it was a very interesting prospect. As a school, we have a very strong set of values, especially through our virtues programme. We aren’t afraid to say, ‘This is what we stand for and these are the standards we expect our students to behave by’. Our values are taken very positively by the students and parents and I think it is one of the main attractions of the school.

What really makes SJII special to me is this great sense of family

What do you think makes SJI International a stand-out school?

What really makes SJII special to me is this great sense of family; that the children are known to us, they feel that the teachers know them and the feel that they matter. We have a really well structured, robust, well-being and pastoral team in place. We talk about the children a lot! We understand if there are issues around the home or school or just in general. For many children, particularly when they aren’t in their home country, they might be questioning, ‘Who am I? Am I Singaporean? Am I Australian?’, there are so many complexities there.

So, we do a lot for the well-being and holistic care of children. This really comes through and the children here are delightful; of all the schools I’ve been to they stand out to me as being very warm and welcoming, they know how to relate to other people, to take care of each other.

Do you still teach at all yourself?

Well, I help with the coaching of the Grade 2’s swimming on a Friday after school! They are so cute, like little tadpoles. But I also try to block out a few hours a week and just wander through classrooms to get a feel for what’s happening on a day-to-day basis and for the children to see me. They do get a bit excited sometimes but it’s always lovely to see them.

You have certainly joined the school in challenging times, is there anything you feel that the school has introduced during Covid that you will carry forward?

Of course, there are a huge number of disappointments that we’ve faced since I’ve joined; we’ve not had parents on campus for nearly a year now, very few activities and very little music or singing even!

But there have been some good learning points. Learning from home forced teachers to rethink how they interact with students through technology, how to present work, how children can present work back. And this can be useful for the future; for homework, for the flipped classroom where children do the work at home and use time in the classroom for the really in-depth and nitty-gritty discussion work. We’ve certainly picked up on our use of technology and will continue to do that in different ways.

What area of school life will you be looking at making an impact on?

My passion is for curriculum and making that the best it can be. We have very high standards already, particularly in numeracy and literacy, so it’s about maintaining that but also growing it into a more enquiry-based, more student-led approach. Getting the student voice into the curriculum.

And then looking at that from the perspective of does our curriculum meet the needs of all our students? We see a greater breadth of student joining the school now, we have more children arriving with English as a second language or with other learning challenges such as ADHD. So, we’ll be looking into how we can deliver the curriculum to take into account a variety of learning styles.

I am also excited to really get the students using our new art suite and music rooms to their full extent. We have a fantastic recording and TV studio and we have lots of children with talents in that area, music and artists alike, so I would like to develop this area.

Can you tell us about three things on your work desk today?

I have a beautiful rock on my desk which was painted by one of the children. It’s just a regular rock and they’ve painted it so beautifully. It’s just gorgeous, there is something about a rock, very simple, very solid. It’s just lovely. Usually I also have a cup of tea and then always a box of tissues for those happy and sad moments.

If you had a superpower for the day, what would it be?

A sense of humour! There is so much going on and sometimes, when appropriate, you just have to be able to say 'how ridiculous' and try to lighten the load and make people laugh!

Can you tell us what your favourite saying or thought is?

I have a poster in my office which has travelled all the way from China to Singapore and it is really important to me as a leader, teacher, parent and friend in a busy world. It is the Chinese character for listen, ‘Ting’, and it reminds me of what is involved and how focused I need to be.

And lastly, what do you think makes a SJII student special?

In our mission statement we talk about ‘learning to learn and learning to live’. This is something we talk about a lot as a school and it’s really heart-warming to hear our teachers talk about our students in regards to this. They always mention our students as having resilience and having the skills to approach difficult situations.

The service element is really strong too, our motto, ‘Enter to learn, learn to serve,’ is very much who all of us are, teachers and students alike. There is a sense that we have this wonderful education and what are we going to do with that privilege. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose plan, it starts with just helping each other. It’s about the people around you and what you can do for each other. I’m sure all schools have this, but I do think this is something we are really strong with at SJII.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to work in some great schools. St Joseph’s is definitely one of them and I’m really enjoying it.

Read our interview with Roisin Paul, High School Principal of SJI International here


Situated on a spacious, leafy campus with impressive facilities, St. Joseph's Institution International School is an independent co-educational Catholic day school in the Lasallian educational tradition. The school offers a holistic, values-driven and international educational experience to a diverse student body comprising more than 40 nationalities. For more information, please contact admissions here


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